Poor Man's Fret Job

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Introduction: Poor Man's Fret Job

In this instructable I will attempt to give a down and dirty process for re-fretting a guitar and filling in the gouges on the fret board.

DISCLAIMER: I take no responsibility for damage to your instrument. The name of the game here is 'carefully' and 'gently.' Please take these steps slowly and deliberately. Make sure to read through the whole thing before starting this project.

I was pleased with the outcome even on my first try.... this was my second. I decided to do this because I capo so much that my frets themselves became dented. I also had terrible gouges in the fretboard itself from years of playing. These fretboard gouges do not affect the playability of the guitar, they are just ugly. My first refretting attempt was on a guitar that was already unplayable, so if I messed it up it didn't matter. Happily, it worked fine and I now have an old friend back!

You can obtain fret wire in many different sizes and radius online or at your local guitar repair shop. I made the switch to stainless steel fret wire instead of nickle. Stainless steel is much harder and less likely to wear down and get dents. I used this website. http://www.warmoth.com/supplies/supplies.cfm?fuseaction=fretwire Good luck.

Step 1: Remove the Frets

First we need to take the old frets out. Take off you strings and lets get moving.

I used a soldering iron to heat the metal fret. This melts the glue in the fret slot and starts to let the fret go. Some guitars will have glue... some won't. But if there is glue you will notice it starting to bubble up from under the fret. Try not to let it get hot enough to burn your fret board.

Take a pocket knife, or something similar to gently pry the fret from the board. This is fairly easy to do... just go slowly. If you remove the fret to quickly without enough heating, the fretboard will chip. A little bit of chipping is normal... but try to keep it to a minimum. Really though, go slowly. Take your time. You love your instrument don't you?

Remember: The frets will be hot from the soldering iron so have pliers on hand to grab the removed fret. Place hot fret in a bowl of water or something so it can cool before you dispose of it.

Once completed I used a very light sand paper to remove some dirt & crud left over from pulling the frets.

Step 2: Clean Fret Slots

Sorry about the fuzzy picture. This is a small razor knife that I used to gently clean out the fret slots. You will probably need to clean the slots out with the razor or some canned air a few times during this project due to sanding dust. Do this at your discretion.

Step 3: Preparing the Gouges

Now to the invasive stuff.

Take a razor and make a series of slices into the fret board gouges you want to fill. Make fairly deep cuts and a whole bunch of slices right next to each other. Cut the entire length of each gouge.

This looks scary to do to a beloved instrument but it will really help get ride of those unsightly gouges.

Step 4: Preparing the Gouges Part Two

Take your razor and 'lift' the cuts you just made into the gouges. The idea here is to raise the splinters, without breaking them off (although you will break a couple), to create a web of wood fibers. I tried to raise the splinters to the level of the fretboard. Again, go carefully and slowly.

Step 5: Preparing the Rosewood

Next you need some rosewood (or ebony if your fretboard is ebony) I bought a couple rosewood pen blanks from a local craft store. (It was a mom & pop shop not a chain. I don't think you can find exotic wood pen blanks at a chain store.... plus 'ol mom & pop had to order these for me.) I bet you can find some rosewood pen blanks and order them for yourself online somewhere.

Okay, So I have my rosewood. I took my favorite rotary tool and sanded off some rosewood to make rosewood dust. I captured the dust on a piece of paper as I sanded. You'll need a small pile. But a little does go a long way. One of these pen blanks should last 50 fret gouge jobs.

NOTE: Rosewood is TOXIC!!! Be sure to use a dust mask while working with rosewood. It smells nice, but don't be fooled. People do have allergic reactions to rosewood. So put on your mask! Its also a good idea to put on eye protection while sanding.

Step 6: Pack the Dust

Now we want to pack the rosewood dust into the webbing of splinters in what used to be the gouges.

So take your piece of paper with the dust on it and gently tap some dust onto your fret board.

Pack the dust down into the gouges using a closed pocket knife, like I did, or something similar. get as much in as you can. Pack it as tightly as you can.

When you are done it should look like the third picture in this step.

Step 7: Glue Dust

Now we are going to glue the dust into the gouge. This is basically creating a resin filler for the slot.

First off, use a thin cyanoacylate glue (super glue). Here is the type I used. SUPER GLUEThis is some heavy duty stuff. Watch your fingers. Put your mask back on! Put on eye protection!

So, drip the glue into the packed dust. The glue will wick down through the dust and the splinters and create the perfect filler for the gouges. As the glue reacts with the dust it might smoke! Don't be alarmed. This type of glue generates heat. Again, watch your fingers, eyes and nose.

Let the glue fully cure. I just let it sit overnight.

Step 8: Sand Sand Sand

I used a spongy sanding block to sand the glued spots down; the type of sanding blocks you'd use for drywall. I used 3 very light grits. So this step takes a long time. Take your time and get the glued areas down nice and flush with the original fretboard. Fret boards are slightly curved so when you sand you do not want to flatten your fretboard. Just try to get the glue nice and even.

When this is done the gouges might be a slightly different color than your original fretboard... but hey the fretboard with be like new again. You can get a lighter color rosewood than your board and then when you apply the glue it might match better. Anyway, the 2nd and 3rd picture in the step make the fillings look much darker than they really are. In person, you have to look closely to see where I filled my frets.

When the sanding is complete, I take a wet cloth and wipe the dust off. Then I take a soft cotton cloth and use it to rub some mineral oil into the entire fret board. I might do this a couple times to let the oil seep into the wood. When complete it should look like pic #2 & #3 in this step.

now to start the re-fretting....

Step 9: Cutting the Fret Wire

Okay, so you have your fret wire and you're ready to go. Just in case; You can obtain fret wire in many different sizes and radius online or at your local guitar repair shop. I used this website. http://www.warmoth.com/supplies/supplies.cfm?fuseaction=fretwire

I simply laid the wire across the fret slot to be fretted and cut with my nippers right at the edge. You need to cut and shape these wires one at a time because each fret slot is slightly smaller (or bigger depending on which end you start), then the one before. So cut the wire, then proceed to the next couple steps, the come back to this step for the next fret. Get it?

Cut carefully, you only have so much fret wire. Make sure you've estimated correctly! This picture was the easiest way I found.

Step 10: Grinding the Fret Tang

Again, sorry for the fuzzy pics.

Once the fret is cut to size then I slap it into a vice and take out my favorite rotary tool. I used a grinding bit that is rated for metal.

I grind down the tang of the fret to about 3/16 inch in from each end. This leaves room for the fret end to come to the edge of the neck binding while still allowing the tang to go down into the slot.

I also ground the end of the fret just to nip off the sharp edge. See pic #2.This is optional but it might help you not cut yourself before you shape the frets in a later step.

It should look like pic #3 when complete.

Step 11: Fret! Don't Fret.

Now take the prepared fret and gently lay it into the slot. Adjust where it sits side to side. Then tap the fret into the slot with a mallet. This might take a couple of firm taps, but don't tap too hard or you might bend or dent your fret.

I did not use glue on mine. The frets fit nice and tight on their own. If yours don't, you can drizzle a small amount of glue down into the slot. Take care not to get the glue on your fretboard. You can use masking tape to protect your fretboard around your slot.

Now go back to step 9 and repeat until you are completely fretted. then move onto step 12.

Step 12: Shaping the Frets

I take out the rotary tool again and use a cut off wheel. using the flat side of the wheel I try to slowly grind the fret flush with the binding. GO VERY SLOWLY! Also work on multiple frets at a time. This will help you avoid getting the fret too hot and melting the binding under the fret. (I did this multiple times) So work on about 4 frets at once. Grind a little on one, then move to the next and so on. Do this until the fret is flush with the binding. I also boogered up the binding a little with my cut off wheel from slips once in a while. But this does not affect the playability of the instrument. If you do ding up the binding a bit, use a small file or emery board to smooth it out a bit.

Note: if you burn under your fret, use caulking or some other type of filler to fill the small gap. Again, I did this a few times but It did not hurt the playability. Maybe you can come up with a better method for this, like hand filing the frets.

Now, you need to put a bevel on the ends of the frets. Again I use the cut off wheel. Most fret bevels are 30 degrees. Many people who re-fret their own instruments over-bevel (I did on my first instrument on two frets.. I was able to pull them out and put a couple new frets in very quickly.... fixed the problem just fine).

So, as you bevel, go slow, work on a 3 or 4 frets at a time to avoid over heating and don't over-bevel.

Now I change the cut off wheel to a sanding disk (pic 2). This will take off small burrs and help to shape and round the fret ends a little more.

Check with you fingers for any sharp parts of the fret. You you find them, carefully sand them blunt.

After the sanding it should look similar to pic #3.

Now I pop off the sanding disc and use a polishing cloth bit and polishing compound (usually comes with the rotary tool). I did not get a picture of this. I have one more guitar to work on, so I will get a picture when I get to polishing those frets. Anyway, with the cloth rotary tool bit and the compound, polish each fret. Pay special attention to the fret ends where you did most of your grinding and sanding so take out and more burrs and polish up.

Step 13: Finishing

Here is my finished re-fretted instrument.

I usually clean up the fretboard... and the rest of the guitar at this point. I might rub in some more mineral oil into the fret board again.

Also double check under the frets in case you burned the binding. Use a caulking to fill the small gaps and then clean the surrounding areas.

Also, sometimes the polishing compound leaves residue. Nail polish remover and a cotton swab takes care of this nicely.

Now re-string the thing and get playing! I usually check the instrument and listen for buzzes. If you get a buzz, either your action is not correct or one of the frets is raised up a bit. If it's the action... that's another instructable. If its a raised fret, you can take the strings back off and tap it down better or make a new fret for that position. If this doesn't work you'll need to file your frets. You can get fret files and fret crowing files online at many websites.

I must say though that my instruments worked out just great and sound fantastic. The filled fretboard gouges are like they never existed! The frets came out nice and level. I even checked them with a straight edge and they were fine. Also this is a 'poor man's' instructable and fretting tools are expensive. So I boogered up my binding a bit and maybe burned unto the fret wire a bit, but I fixed these issues cheaply, effectively and easily.

So Good luck and let me know if you have any other ideas that are cheap and don't require specialized tools or equipment!

Thanks for reading.

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This part is pretty scary. You were obviously very careful here.. because your guitar wasn't broken in the next step. I wouldn't recommend that other people take this chance though.

A little bit of the fretboard just past the edge of the body will be supported by the tenon part of the neck joint. The rest is only supported by the rather flimsy top of the guitar. Just the thought of hammering frets into this section makes me edgy.

Alternate idea..

In the past, I've made my own Fret press caul and it worked very well. I used a scrap piece of recycled porch decking material [mostly plastic]. I sanded a radius into the face of the material* and used a clamp to push the caul into the fret.. and the fret in turn into the neck.

  1. reach into sound hole to look for bracing.
  2. cut a block of wood or similar material to place inside the sound hole under the unsupported portion of the fretboard. As needed, route a channel[s] into block to clear any bracing or the like.
  3. place your prepared frets into the slots.. you can do more than one at a time.
  4. insert the block from #2 under the fretboard [inside guitar].
  5. rest the caul on top of the frets and hold in place with a C-clamp or the like
  6. Carefully apply pressure until the caul presses the frets into the slots.

Consider.. the more frets you do at once, the more pressure required and the more likely you are to crush the soundboard [top of the guitar body]. Work slow.. don't get greedy by trying to press in tight fret wire all at once.

The caul also works well for other parts of the neck.. especially for bolt-on necks. You always want to have plenty of support on the neck though so make another caul to cup the back of the neck. Once you have the top and bottom cauls.. you can use a clamp to press the frets in.. or you can sometimes even get away with using a press instead [a beefy drill press will even work].

* there are lots of ways to put a radius into the face of your caul. I suggest first roughly removing material with a sander or rasp. Then, place coarse sand paper over the fret board and use the radius of the un-fretted fretboard to shape the face of the caul to the same radius [rub the caul on the paper/fretboard.. you're using the fretboard as a sanding block essentially].

Nice one man

thanks. the frets are still working really great years after I shared this.

I like the final affect of your patch. Replacing the gouges with the filler leaves the same pattern but it's got a burned [dirty] look to it.. which is sort of cool.

For other readers.. there's no requirement to fill worn spots in the fretboard unless they're under the fret wire. They're the result of someone with long finger nails playing the guitar for years. It's a lot of work and you want to be careful when sanding that you don't change the curve of the fretboard or it's trueness end to end.

I've got a '64 Gibson estate sale find with this problem.. It's tempting to go this route but I'll probably keep the wear and just give it a quick sand with a radiuses block to make sure it's true.

BTW.. the other way to repair fretboard damage is to chisel or route out the damaged portion and then glue in a replacement piece of wood. Again.. lots of work.. and delicate. If you try this.. be careful. Of course.. one last thing you can do to fix damage on a fretboard.. convince yourself what it really needs is Mother of Pearl* block inlays. :-)

*for different reasons, MoP is also dangerous stuff to work with. Instead of chemically irritant sawdust like rosewood, you'll get a highly abrasive dust. Wear a good mask if you work with it.

P.S. The recommendation to oil the board is a good one. You should clean and oil non-sealed fretboards when you change your strings too. Wood has natural oils in it.. rosewood in particular is rather oily. Replacing that oil as it wears and degrades will protect the wood from shrinking, cracking, or chipping.

Another popular choice for fretboards is Lemon Oil.. which you can buy in applicators for guitars [Dunlop sells it for about 5 bucks for 4 oz.] or in the cleaning product isle [used on furniture as well]. Buying it from Johnson and Johnson instead of Dunlop has the advantage of it costing about 1/10th as much per volume.

One nice thing about lemon oil.. it smells like lemon oil. :-)

..a tip I picked up somewhere..

Take a scrap piece of 2x4 and drill a grid of holes an inch deep into a wide face of the board. Label the holes 1, 2, 3.. to the number of frets you have.

As you cut your frets to length, place them in the corresponding hole of your scrap block to keep them straight from each other.

I'd avoid using anything as a "caulking" under the fret edges. If they don't seat flush to the fretboard, it's because the fret slots aren't deep enough.. because there's debris in the slots, or because the frets aren't seated fully.

If you think you'll have issues with fret depth, and it's more likely when re-fretting a bound fretboard.. especially when you've leveled [sanded] the fretboard.. you can make a dummy fret to test depth.

Take one length of fret wire, bent to the radius of your fretboard [not over-radiused like your frets should be]. Take your dremel and carefully grind off the barbs that protrude from the fret tang [the back of the fret that goes into the slot]. What you want is a fret where the tang is flat so you can insert it and remove it from the fret slots with little pressure and no damage to the board.

Drop that in all the slots before you start fretting and confirm that the top of the fret sits flat against the fretboard.

Note.. some fret wire has a twist pressed into the tang to make it wider.. do your best to level the tang side until you can push it end and remove it from slots easily. You can try flattening this with pliers or press but be careful to avoid twisting the fret wire or lengthening the depth of the tang.

yea.. this is probably not a best idea. It's way too easy to get carried away with the Dremel.

A better way to get a consistent file on the fret edges is to run a block of wood through your table saw with the blade set to a 30 degree angle. Better yet high-density polymer [HDPE] if you have a block of that.. I use an old drilled block of HDPE which formerly held dowels for test tube storage.

What you'll get, hopefully, is a block with a diagonal cut into one one side that doesn't remove any material.. you're slicing into it, not lopping the edge off or bisecting it. Set the depth to [spoiler alert] about half the width of a flat file.

Now.. grab a fine-pattern flat file and slide it into the slot. What you should have now is a block with half of a file sticking out the bottom.. 30 degrees off of perpendicular to the face of the block.

Set the block on the frets so the file extends down and away from the edge of the fretboard and run it down the fret ends until they're all filed to a uniform and appropriate length.

Tips..

  1. for a set-neck like the acoustic here.. set the file deep into the block so you can run it over the frets that sit on top of the body. I do this for bolt on electrics and I leave the file about half buried in the block so it's easier to remove/replace.
  2. Lop off the end of the file if it's made with a handle.. if you want to. You'll be less likely to damage the guitar if there isn't a pointy metal handle sticking out one edge. Remember though, tools like files are made of tool steel.. hard to cut. "cut" really means "grind off" or "grind through" in this case.
  3. In my case, my thin kerf table saw blade just happens to be thick enough to slide the file in and out of the slot but thin enough grab my file well. you may need to shim or open the slot as required by your saw and your file.

I've known people who have used coffee grinds in place of the wood shavings... smells nice!

Alternatively, you could use any other type of hardwood, especially the coloured ones [ i like purple heart] or use stone instead of wood, just to add colour. Don't do that to an instrument that you LOVE, obviously, I've done it to my "beater" guitars and it's worked out fine!

You can get this wood at any Rockler or Woodcraft store or their websites...